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After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.
The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.
Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise
The Miami Heat are a walking and talking embodiment of an NBA stereotype. The team was cobbled together by a high profile former coaching star, the team made a point to work in a party-hearty, warm weather climate, and genuinely nothing of any importance will happen to the Miami Heat until the playoffs start in April. And really, because these are the Heat, the playoffs won’t really start until May. You really can take the regular season off with these guys.
Of course, if you do that, you may just miss out on the finest individual season ever put together by an NBA basketball player.
LeBron James turns 29 just before the start of the New Year, and he is in his basketball prime. The reigning MVP has eliminated just about every negative aspect (for James, this should read, “merely above average aspect”) of his game, with only a Jordan-level free throw stroke (James shot 75 percent last season and just under 78 percent in the playoffs) left to work his way toward. That’s it. His spot-up shooting from long range was amongst the league’s best last year. His defense is superb. He’s worked his way around issues recognizing collapsing zone defenses. He trusts himself in the post. It’s over, and he’s won.
This certainly doesn’t sign the Heat up for a guaranteed third consecutive championship, but if the Heat helpers stay reasonably healthy, and James can offer just under 3,000 minutes of work with a 30 or so Player Efficiency Rating, the Heat will likely once again end up with the league’s best record, and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. This means that any NBA preview discussion regarding the Heat is about as useful as predicting how the playoffs are going to go in the third week in April. We’re all waiting the season out to see if the Pacers or Bulls can give the Heat a run in the East, and if the West can knock together a winner that can stay healthy enough to down the champs in June.
You still need to watch, though.
The Heat are thinner than ever. Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade are a year older, Chris Andersen came into camp in iffy shape, and Mario Chalmers won’t be stepping in as the hero any time soon. A proud and cerebral Udonis Haslem is on his last legs, and sadly we don’t know if Greg Oden has a healthy left leg to stand on. Mike Miller is gone. Shane Battier seems to alternate 10-15 bursts and 2-18 swoons from long range, and there’s only so much Erik Spoelstra can do.
Which is why LeBron will have to step up for six regular season months, and also why he’ll probably put together another year for the ages. Assuming he’s working off the same career arc that seemed to take hold when he decided to stop straying and down the Boston Celtics by his lonesome in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.
From there, the guesswork is all up to the opponents in the East, and whoever comes out of the West. The Chicago Bulls worked without home court advantage in both the 1993 Conference finals and Finals, and the 1998 NBA Finals as they chased down a three-peat. The 1991 Pistons were swept, as were the 1989 and 2011 Los Angeles Lakers, as all three attempted a three-peat. The San Antonio Spurs, team of their era, has yet to win two straight.
That’s all for May, and likely June. For now, with their position atop the East just about assured, and LeBron’s rightful one-time critics silenced, we can actually enjoy the games for once without the thoughts of legacy bugging us along the way.
Projected record: 60-22
Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine
While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.
Tune into the Heat for … I mean, come on.
They employ LeBron James, who is the best basketball player in the world. He is a force of nature who “sets the boundary of human possibility,” a man at the peak of his powers who responded to the biggest challenge of his career with 37, 12 and a W, and an all-time great who now plays, as a friend of mine put it, to limit the conversation to him, Jordan and Russell. He is worth the price of admission and subscription every night, a playmaker for himself and others on a level rarely seen in the history of the sport; if we allow questions about eventual destinations, one-on-one against ghosts and imaginary final shots to obscure that reality, we are blowing it.
They employ Dwyane Wade, who is one of the most talented and ferocious players of the past decade. He is a fighter whose great performances are a bit fewer and farther between than they used to be, but still pack a hell of a punch when they come. He’s worth watching for those, but maybe even more so to trace the coming steps in his evolution as he turns 32, blows past 30,000 career pro minutes and continues to rage against the dying of his knee.
They employ Chris Bosh, who is perhaps the game’s most overlooked and salt-sprinkled linchpin -- the versatile big man whose length, quickness, shooting and passing touch, understanding of offensive spacing and defensive instincts have been nearly as instrumental in Miami’s ability to change gears between big and small mid-stream in games and series without missing a beat. He’s worth watching for that, but also because he does something weird and hilarious, intentionally or otherwise, just about every night.
They employ Ray Allen, maybe the best shooter of all time and a marksman who shows no signs of slowing down as he cruises past age 38 en route to the left corner, where he is the most dangerous man ever. Their trick-or-treat point guard is hilariously self-confident, and sometimes backs it up. Their bench includes “a crazy-ass white boy” who shot 80 percent from the field in the playoffs, two of the most fascinating reclamation projects in recent memory, and one of the steadiest and smartest guys in the game. Even the guys they bring in for camp do fun stuff.
They won 27 straight games last year. No, for real: they didn’t lose for almost two months. You didn’t imagine that.
The Heat are explosive when running the floor and surgical when they want to slow down. They can score on and stop anyone. Beating them requires opponents to play amazing basketball; as a result, we get to watch stuff like the Knicks hitting 18 3s or ‘Melo scoring 50, or the Bulls snapping the streak and pulling a Game 1 stunner, or the Warriors and Paul George introducing themselves to the world, or the entire last two series of the last postseason.
They’re prompting evolution on both sides of the ball; they’re trying to become just the fifth team in pro hoops history to win three straight titles; and they’re doing so under the threat of it all coming apart in a hail of early termination options in nine months’ time. You should tune into the Heat because, on just about every level, they’re the most fascinating entity in professional basketball. But you already knew that.
Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion
NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.
The biggest problem with previewing the Miami Heat is that whatever they do in the regular season is mostly meaningless. No matter where they finish in the East standings, their postseason finish will ultimately judge their season. A two-time defending champion creates new expectations for itself.
Nevertheless, the health of Dwyane Wade should be a subject of conversation throughout this season. In last spring’s playoffs, Wade looked capable of playing up to his usual high standard in only short bursts, taking over games (or at least attempting to impose himself on the action) in spots rather than over the course of 48 minutes. It was a sign, perhaps, that the nine-time All-Star, who turns 32 in January, is entering a new era in his career, one where he’s not so much an All-NBA talent as a really great player every team would love to employ.
Wade, to his credit, seems to understand that he’s not what he used to be, having accepted the ascendance of LeBron James in the Heat’s hierarchy and becoming quite forthcoming regarding his injury history. But talking about these things is very different than allowing one’s self to appear diminished on the court for a protracted period of time. If Erik Spoelstra attempts to limit Wade’s minutes in the hope of saving him for the regular season, it’s possible that the star’s ego will suffer the consequences. At the same time, Wade could be better suited to shine in the games that matter most to Miami. Wade wants to win, but he’s also used to being near the center of attention. It remains to be seen if he can accept that tradeoff over several months.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Bobcats • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors